‘The beauty myth tells a story: the quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists.
Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. An imperative for women and not for men(…)’ (Wolf, Naomi, “The Beauty Myth”, page 2) We live in a post-modern world. Images, surface and appearances have gained a huge importance in the last decades. Image has replaced everything else, becoming one of the first things to take into account in order to apply for some job, etc, especially in the female world.In the post-modern world the lost of identity is another point, as well as the power of new technologies and the lost of privacy they imply.
All this is clearly shown in Jennifer Egan’s book Look at Me, written in 2001. In this essay, first of all, I am going to discuss the power of image and surface in the post-modern world. Secondly, I am going to analyse the relation between gender and image, especially in the female world. Lastly, I am going to consider the way in which new technologies influence the image world.
To begin with, Jennifer Egan makes a deep analysis of the importance of image in the 21st century.Every character in the book reflects some aspect of the importance of appearances and the effect they have in our society. Jennifer Egan plays with this world of images just from the beginning, in fact, the main character, Charlotte Swenson, is a quite well-known fashion model, whose life revolves around image and surface. Through this character, the writer analyses the darkness of the modelling world, where appearance is very important and all the girls who are in it look very similar, as Aziz notices when he arrives in New York.
For Charlotte, who used to make a living out of her image, it is very taught to live again after the accident, without her old appearance. Jennifer Egan shows the reader the reality about the visual culture in which we live. Charlotte finds herself lost after losing her appearance, which has been a key feature in her life, and tries once and again to go back to her old life, even if she fails in her attempt. This is a good example of people who base their life on their external look and someday, as always happens, they lose it, finding their-selves in a meaningless world.In addition to this, Charlotte represents people who are very obsessed with their appearance and the way people see them.
For example, after the accident she uses a lot of pancake make-up and sunglasses in order to hide her real appearance. Besides, before the accident, she also tries to look good all the time. That is, there is a key point in the book when Egan describes how Charlotte Swenson breaks all the pictures in which she does not look good. This shows the degree of worry people have about their image and how they cannot allow people seeing them in a situation in which they do not look perfect.Charlotte does not have real friends.
In fact, at the beginning she tries to lean on her agent, Oscar, for support, but he proves to be not a real friend when he avoids her and tries to introduce her into a cruel fashion business. However, she seems to be the only one who does not realise. ‘He is my best friend’ (page 266) she claims after having been betrayed by him several times. Oscar is a clear example of the coldness of the world of appearances. Moreover, Charlotte bases everything around her on image.
Although in most of the cases the image should be irrelevant, she judges everybody for their appearance. That is, she mixes the fashion-modelling world with other areas that have nothing to do with fashion and physical appearance. For example, when she meets Irene, the supposed journalist she says: ‘Irene Maitlock (…) wearing a less pointy bra, a minimum of makeup, (…) She had thick light brown hair that begged for highlights, a decent figure, lovely blue eyes’ (page 73).And once again she says about her: ‘(…) the clumsy patched moth holes in her sweaters and cheap strawberry shampoo I’d smelled on her hair. (…) the broken plastic hairbrush in her purse, the fake leader wallet, the gold peeling off her earrings, the Bic pens. The tired circles under her eyes.
Her bleeding cuticles’ (page 264). Or the fragment in which she talks about her fourteen years old niece Allison: ‘(…) with long amber hair, freckled skin that would age terribly, poor thing, but at present was flush with succulent youth; (…)’ (page 325). This is a critic of the society which tends to give a huge amount of value to image in all the areas of life, even if there are circumstances in which the surface is not the point to be judged or valued.The writer talks about appearances, which are very important for most of the people.
She uses the concept “shadow self” to refer to the way in which people act when they are trying to show a good image of themselves. It is only when they are not doing an effort, when the real personality and image of people is shown. Egan describes the ‘shadow-self’ as: ‘(…) that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly for certain bad photographs’ (page 34). The writer gives several examples in the novel.At the beginning Irene’s shadow self was a good one, but in the end Charlotte can notice how that shadow self has turned to be a sad one: ‘(…) I glimpsed a catastrophic change in her shadow self: a degeneration from the dancing sylph of months ago, when we’d first met, to a lank, dreary presence- resigned to some deep unhappiness’ (page 322).
This change in Irene’s shadow self represents the unhappiness that goes together with entering the surface world. Jennifer Egan criticizes the social pressure that physical appearance causes in young girls through the character Charlotte Hauser, the teenage Charlotte.At the beginning she is very different from the other girls of her age. Although her friends try to persuade her many times to wear make up, etc., she always refuses. Nonetheless, she has a strange relation with Ellen, her beautiful mother, sometimes she is angry with her as if she was jealous of her beauty.
This makes the reader doubt about her self-confidence and the strength she shows when she deals with her friends’ critics. Moreover, after Aziz departure, she succumbs to this world of surface and changes her physical appearance completely.This might be an invitation for the reader to think about the impossibility to avoid being influenced by the world of image. Secondly, Jennifer Egan analyses the close relation between gender and image. She describes the discrimination that the society makes against women.
One example is when everybody criticizes and gives Charlotte Hauser the back, after she had sex with Scott Hess, whereas nobody says anything about the boy, Scott Hess, who is seen as a hero and who continues being very popular and proud of being a womanizer.The most impacting fact is that the girls themselves are the ones who criticize Charlotte the most. This is something that happens in everyday life and is a key point in gender discrimination. On the other hand, there is a huge distinction between the way women and men are seen in the book, particularly in the modelling world.
As I have mentioned before, when Z arrives in New York he is very impressed by the amount of beautiful girls that are there, and the way in which they act.He considers, actually, that they lack of identity: ‘(…), as if they existed collectively, rather than singly: (…)’ (page 356) and he refers to them as ‘purely visual phenomena’ (page 357). Furthermore, in the novel we can see how men rule the pubs and women’s careers, while women are grouped all together as social ornaments. Another gender distinction in the book is the relation between Charlotte Swenson and her agent, Oscar. She is seen weak and very dependent on the male authority.
Charlotte continuously looks for his help and attention, she feels lost without him.While, Oscar is very capable of living by his own and does not need Charlotte’s company, support, help, nor Charlotte herself. This is related with Naomi Wolf’s idea of women’s image: ‘The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men and power’.
Moreover, Jennifer Egan shows the reader what a powerful tool image is in women’s world. In fact, a woman with a good looking surface makes men be afraid and gives her the capacity to be above men. This is analysed in the relation between Charlotte Swenson and her sister’s husband, Frank Jones.When Charlotte is a model, their relation is very complicated and they do not get on well, whereas, after Charlotte’s car accident, Frank’s attitude changes drastically and they start to have some kind of affinity.
Charlotte associates this directly with the lost of her model face: ‘Because I understood that with my new face, I was no longer a threat to him’ (page 327). That is, now that Charlotte does not have her beautiful appearance and she is not as self-confident as she used to be, he feels she is not anymore above him, so he dares to have more contact with her.Finally, Jennifer Egan discusses the influence that new technologies have on images in the post-modern world. The most important example in the novel is the project Thomas Keene has, the ‘Ordinaries and Extraordinaries’. The writer anticipates the boom that was about to come in a few years. In this project, in which Charlotte Swenson takes part, people let other people know everything about their life for a very big quantity of money.
At the beginning she has to think a lot about it, because selling your life is not a pleasant action. However, this is exactly what people do now.There are a lot of blogs and social-networks where people write everything that happens to them and express all their feelings, but not for a lot of money, as it is in Charlotte’s case, but for free. Besides, there are millions of writings about people’s life which have never been read by anyone. This shows us once again the irony of life, in fact, some years ago very few people were paid incredible quantities of money, and, in contrast, now everybody does it for free, and what is more, there are a lot of writings published that do not interest anyone and are never read.Jennifer Egan anticipates the creation of Web 2.
0, where interaction is the new key point of the internet. Before this phenomenon, no one was able to take part in the big world of the internet. What Jennifer Egan introduces in Look at Me is just an anticipation of what it was to come, because there are specialists who write about the Ordinaries and the Extraordinaries’ lives, they control the editing and publishing and they pay people for their stories. Egan satirizes the immorality of selling your private life, but at least before people were well-paid for doing so.Now, everybody writes about their lives on the internet and, consequently the power of new technologies is destroying the concept of individualism. What is more, people cannot only read, but interact in the process, commenting and criticising these writings, many times harming the writer, as Jaron Lanier claims ‘Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors’ (Lanier, Jaron, You are not a Gadget, Ed.
Penguin, 2011, page 19) With the rise of new technologies women are even more pressured to look well all the time.In fact, women appearing in television and in web pages are usually good looking, so as the media everyday is more and more present in our lives, these images are very frequent and women are very influenced by them. Furthermore, through media many identities of a same celebrity are spread. It is possible to see them in completely different situations, with different behaviours and appearances.
In Look at Me, this is shown by the concept of ‘the mirrored room’, which describes a period in Charlotte Swenson’s life, as she has many identities which are noticeable during the novel.In addition, the cosmetic industry is also growing very fast and it creates big amounts of money. So there are a lot of products designed to help women improve their physical appearance. With all this, it is complicated to avoid being part of this world of surfaces.
This happens to Charlotte Hauser, as I have mentioned before, as well as to Irene, who after being part of the popular project of the Ordinaries and Extraordinaries, she succumbs to the surface world and becomes part of it.At the beginning she criticizes it and says she is not interested in the fashion world: ‘I’m definitely not interested in fashion. But this is not about fashion, this is about identity’ (page 73). She seems to have her own identity and to be above this world of images, but in the end she changes her physical appearance and loses her identity: ‘(…) she is a celebrity in her own right.
I saw a picture of her recently on the arm of Richard Gere, (…) She looks so different, thanks to her much chronicled makeover; without the name, I wouldn’t have recognized her’ (page 415).Once again, this proves the theory that it is very easy to fall into the world of appearances. On the other hand, in the end of the novel, Charlotte Swenson manages to go on with her life and make a living not as a model but as a social phenomenon. In fact, a movie is made about her story, which produces a lot of expectation and money. Once again, she takes advantage of her image, even though in this case it is her destroyed image.
However, we discover that Charlotte, tired of this world, decides to sell her identity and leaves her old life back.This brings her to a real happiness that her old life full of image, surface and appearances has never given her: ‘As for myself, I’d rather not say very much. When I breathe, the air feels good in my chest’ (Egan, Jennifer, Look at Me, Ed. Picador, 2001, page 415). Lastly, through the novel it is present the idea of the American conspiracy. It is a critic of the way in which the image world is dominating everything else.
In fact, the society has lost personality; all the main cities look the same, globalization is destroying the World as it used to be, as uncle Moose claims: ‘It is the end of the world!’ (page 400).Many other characters in the book are concerned about this conspiracy. As for example, we know that Abby’s ex-husband, who has left to Hollywood, has once said: ‘This is the new renaissance. (…) Everything is about to change’ (page 303), ‘A revolution is happening’ (page 306). Aziz is also tired of this conspiracy and tries to avoid it.
However, in the end he also leaves to Hollywood, which is the centre of images. To sum up, we live in a world dominated by physical appearance, image and surface.Jennifer Egan in her novel Look at Me makes a deep analysis of the influence image and new technologies have on people of the post-modern world, especially on women, as well as she discusses the degree of gender implication there is in these two ideas, concluding that the concept of surface and image is one of the most powerful features there is in the post-modern world and that as a consequence, almost everything in life is influenced by this. I can conclude with a sentence that summarises my writing: ‘Appearance rules the world’ (Friedrich Schiller).